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Senior orators: Naomi Chasek-Macfoy ’18, Lexi Lerner ’18 MD’23

Following University tradition, two members of the class of 2018 will deliver Commencement speeches at the 250th Commencement ceremony May 27.

For the past three years, Naomi Chasek-Macfoy ’18 has retold the story of the 1968 black student walkout as a workshop facilitator for the Third World Transition Program. During the walkout, 65 black students from Brown and Pembroke walked from Faunce to the Congdon Street Baptist Church to protest the University’s treatment toward them. Chasek-Macfoy first learned about the walkout when she was in TWTP as a freshman herself, and it is a story she has shared every year.

“It’s part of this storytelling tradition, this oral history tradition amongst students of color at Brown, which I’ve been super honored to have been a part of,” said Chasek-Macfoy, an Africana studies concentrator from New York.

Now, she will detail the central demands of the walkout to a larger audience: the attendees of the 250th Commencement Ceremony on May 27. Chasek-Macfoy and Lexi Lerner ’18 MD’23, from New Jersey, are the senior commencement speakers for the class of 2018, upholding the 250-year-old practice of student-delivered commencement addresses.

Chasek-Macfoy hopes to encourage the audience to consider the progress that has been made since the walkout 50 years ago and to understand what progress remains. One of the central demands of the students who walked out in 1968 was to increase the black student enrollment at Brown to match the percentage of the black population in America. Today, the population is 12 percent nationally, yet the black student enrollment in the undergraduate population is currently about 6 percent, Chasek-Macfoy said.

“Students of color and other marginalized students know that conditions of marginalization at Brown, and in general, haven’t really moved,” Chasek-Macfoy said.

Threaded throughout the speech is a message of urgency to continue racial justice work outside of Brown in a way that centers around the voices of people of color, Chasek-Macfoy said. “It’s our responsibility to listen closely to people who are being particularly silenced.”

Lerner’s speech, to be delivered second, is one response to this call for the inclusion of diverse voices.

“Naomi’s message pertains a lot to listening, just like mine does,” Lerner said. “In some ways, she poses a historical question, and I provide one answer to that question in terms of how that can be achieved.”

Lerner’s speech examines building bridges on different scales. From biological systems within the human body (Lerner is a biology concentrator) to bridges students built in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Lerner eventually arrives at how soon-to-be college graduates will connect with their new communities.

“Now we’re leaving Brown — we’re going to either go home or go to a place we’ve never been before,” Lerner said. “How do we think about bridging the distance between ourselves and what we learned at Brown to our new communities?”

The commencement speakers are chosen by the Senior Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, with Assistant Dean of the College Shannon O’Neill as the convener of the committee and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Samuel Perry as the faculty chair. Anyone in the senior class can be nominated by a faculty member or graduating students.

Lerner was initially hesitant to submit a draft after they were nominated.

“I thought very long and hard about what it would mean for me in particular to give a speech at Brown, what I had to give the Brown community and also what kind of space I would be taking up by presenting,” Lerner said. But their grandparents encouraged them that everybody had a story to tell, and Lerner decided to write the first draft, which they described as “a disaster — the first half was entirely about immunology.”

Eight to 10 finalists are selected to deliver a complete speech to the committee in early April, O’Neill wrote in an email to The Herald. Revision and feedback are encouraged by the committee, which “requires nominees to solicit feedback from at least one person prior to submission,” O’Neill wrote.

Lerner credited Richard Bungiro, senior lecturer in molecular microbiology and immunology, and Stacy Kastner, associate director of the Writing Support Programs, among others, for proofreading and editing their speech. Chasek-Macfoy said she reviewed her speech closely with friends.

“(Their) ideas and critical thoughts have been integral to me forming my own sense of politics over the past four years,” Chasek-Macfoy said. “I rely on my friends the most for my political education.”

Following graduation, Chasek-Macfoy is preparing to work as a paralegal for the Human Rights Practice Group with a law firm in Washington D.C. before going to law school. Lerner will take a year off before dedicating four years to the Alpert Medical School. They hope to become an infectious disease doctor.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the caption in the Commencement Magazine print edition misidentified Lerner and Chasek-Macfoy. Lerner is on the left side of the photo, while Chasek-Macfoy is on the right. In addition, the sentence describing Lerner's encouragement from their grandparents to do the speech did not contain their proper pronouns. The Herald regrets the errors. 


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